I remember it like it was yesterday. I was at a new friend’s house with a small group of my middle school-age classmates. With our Peter Pan collar blouses untucked and tartan school uniform skirts reaching well past our scraped knees, we discovered a box of magazines featuring images of naked men under her mother’s bed.
Feeling a confusing combination of aversion and attraction, we giggled and gasped our way through every issue as one of us stood guard at the door to make sure her mom didn’t catch us red-handed — and red-faced. At the end of the afternoon, we slid the magazines back under the bed, pledging to one another we wouldn’t tell another soul — especially not our parents — what we’d found.
This was my — and likely, my similarly sheltered friends’ — first exposure to explicit materials. And in comparison to what kids can find today, it would be considered very tame, but was no less exciting for us.
“Exposure to sexually explicit material is a typical developmental experience among adolescents due to sexual curiosity,” says Dr. Kelsey Bradshaw, a clinical child psychologist with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. “Before the internet, there were discussions with peers and accessing pornography on tapes, DVDs and magazines.”
Increased access to pornography online
However, according to Dr. Bradshaw, internet-enabled devices have increasingly allowed people of all ages to access sexually explicit content. And research from over 10 years ago has shown significant increases in the number of youth who are intentionally or accidentally encountering pornographic material online. In fact, a 2009 study found that 66% of male and 39% of female adolescents reported that by age 14, they had been exposed to sexually explicit material in the previous year.
“Unmonitored access for youth raises genuine concerns about potential risks,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “Ten years ago, the average American teen owned three mobile devices, and in 2021, most teens and even preteens have smartphones. Younger children often have internet-enabled devices or may borrow their caregivers’ devices.”
How pornography affects kids
So, how concerned should you be about your kids’ increased access to explicit content? According to Dr. Bradshaw, it depends how open and honest you are with your children when it comes to discussions about healthy relationships and sexuality.
“First, we must acknowledge that humans are sexual creatures,” he says. “Sexual curiosity, experimentation and activity are healthy and normal parts of human development. Even as children, we become curious about our sexual organs and the sensations we discover that are tied to them.”
However, if you are unwilling or unable to have conversations with your children about explicit material, messaging about sexuality and sexual behavior will instead come from peers, media and the internet. And while explicit material might serve as a source of knowledge, Dr. Bradshaw says it is likely to distort an individual’s ideas of sexuality.
“Without proper knowledge and discussion, pornography can strengthen harmful gender stereotypes and normalize violent, taboo or nonconsensual acts,” he says. “Research has shown that boys and girls may start to believe that what they see online is representative of normative sexual behavior.”
Such beliefs can lead to unrealistic attitudes about sex and misleading attitudes toward relationships, the researchers found. For example, it may lead some individuals to view sex as primarily physical and casual rather than affectionate and relational. It can also lead to sexualized objectification of women, a disregard for the importance of consent, and increased body shame.
Tips for talking to kids of all ages about pornography
According to Dr. Bradshaw, part of discussing pornography is discussing sex in general. You have to be aware of and consider your own views on sex and pornography.
“While it can be an awkward conversation, we don’t have to make it more so,” he says. “When having this discussion, consider your child’s developmental stage and your own personal belief system. Before you start the discussion, consider what you might want your child to learn and know about sexuality and intimacy.”
The number one consideration, Dr. Bradshaw advises, is to leave shame out of the discussion. If you associate shame with discussions about sex, you can make things worse and risk isolating yourself from the discussion. He offers these tips for talking to kids:
For children under 10:
- Create screen time rules. Try to ensure devices are accessed in a public area and that there are controls to limit access to content that is not age-appropriate. Discuss your internet and social media access guidelines with your kids.
- Have age-appropriate discussions. For kids who are not yet ready for the sex talk but who still access the internet, you can tell them, “If you come upon a site that feels inappropriate or confusing, please tell me.” If they do come across it, you can tell them the content is for adults and not children, and ask them if they have any questions. With younger kids, it is OK to tell them you’ll discuss more with them when they’re older.
- Be clear when talking about bodies and consent. Consider talking about how physical and emotional intimacy are related to each other. It is also beneficial to speak with young children about appropriately naming their genitalia — for example, their penis or vagina — and the importance of boundaries, consent and privacy.
- Don’t wait to start the conversation. For older children who may have not yet had a talk about pornography, do so now.
- Be sex-positive. Be sure to convey that sexual activity is normal, and talk openly, honestly and without judgment. Let them know that privacy, intimacy and connection are healthy components of a sexual relationship.
- Listen first. Try to elicit information so that you can be aware of their knowledge and feelings. Stick with open-ended questions, such as, “Why do you think people use pornography?” “How do you think porn impacts people’s real-life relationships?”
- Be open and honest about your concerns. Tell them you want to help them understand important considerations and risks related to pornography and to develop realistic views of healthy sexual behavior and relationships.
- Pornography is not an inherently bad thing and is something many people have viewed.
- Pornography is not real. It is staged, and often more fantasy than typical sexual behavior.
- Pornography is entertainment, and largely driven by making what sells and what will make a profit or get interest.
- Similar to any entertainment, people in pornography are actors, may be physically altered or enhanced, and do not often represent what most people look like.
When to seek help
If your child needs a more in-depth conversation and won’t have it with you, Dr. Bradshaw recommends that you seek out other trusted adults or professional help. This may also be a consideration if there are concerns about overuse.
Potential signs of concern may include a child who is viewing pornography to the exclusion of engaging in other activities, relying on pornography as a means to cope, or being influenced by the content in their treatment of others.
“Parents and caregivers who are concerned about overuse, boundaries around use or content of what is being viewed may want to talk with a professional,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “They can help you determine if the behavior is atypical and something to be addressed.”
Learn about Sharp Mesa Vista’s programs specifically designed for young people experiencing serious behavioral and emotional problems.